Gauteng's funeral parlours see spike in clients amid COVID third wave

Cremators, undertakers and funeral parlours are barely making it through the day due to the surge of COVID-19 deaths during the third wave of the pandemic.

A morgue attendant at the Johannesburg branch of the South African funeral and burial services company Avbob checks the condition of a protective wrapping inside a refrigerated container where bodies of patients deceased with COVID-19 related illnesses are kept isolated ahead of their burials on 22 January 2021. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - The brutal third wave of COVID-19 infections has led to crematoriums being inundated with triple the usual workload, while Avbob funeral parlors across Gauteng recorded a 150% increase in clients in July alone.

Almost 3,000 people died from COVID-19 complications in South Africa in just the first week of July, with most losses happening in Gauteng.

COVID-19 claimed one life every 10 minutes on average this week in Gauteng. On Sunday, the Department of Health recorded a total number of 8,804 people who were in hospitals across the province; 3,155 in public facilities and 5,649 private facilities.

Against the backdrop of this grim picture, crematorium operators, undertakers and funeral parlors are under enormous pressure. Last week, there were over 1,000 burials through state facilities.

"It is quite stressful on us working there. I have to sometimes work until late at night. After having done 15 cremations, I came home at 1:15nam. But I've got a passion for the work, and I need to do what I can to help people. It's quite stressful."

Oscar Field is a crematorium operator in Lenasia - one of only two crematoriums owned by the state in Johannesburg. With the city being the epicentre of the pandemic in Gauteng, staff members are feeling the pressure during this peak.

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Field said before the third wave of infections, they would do six cremations in a day. But that number rose to 19, leading them to work into the early hours of the morning.

"They would say, 'please, can't you squeeze me in? Please make a way, Oscar'. The third wave is still climbing," he explained to Eyewitness News last week.

"We are suffering. We don't have the cremation capacity. Gauteng is such a big area. The religious thing comes in: Hindus [believe] your ashes should be scattered in the river within three days of your death, and that becomes a bit of a problem," he added, saying religious needs added to the demands.

But the demand for burials is also on the rise.

Avbob is one of the largest privately owned funeral parlors in Africa and has been in the business for over 100 years.

The company has had to extend its business hours to the point where it is now operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It's general manager, Pieter van der Westhuizen, said between June and now in Gauteng, they’ve seen a 60% increase in cremations and a 53% spike in burials compared to last winter.

He said the company had to expand its cooling facilities, add more personnel and extend it's repatriation vehicle list.

The City of Johannesburg's manager for cemeteries and crematoria, Reggie Moloi, told Eyewitness News it was a tough time for them too.

"There've been instances in the past week, we had to dig while funerals are standing waiting here. We never used to have so many funerals in the week," he said.

Funeral parlors, undertakers and crematoriums are overstretched and are working under extremely difficult circumstances. They’re bracing for even more tough weeks ahead before the numbers are expected to start slowing down in the province.

Meanwhile, Theo Rix from the Western Cape's Blue Crane Funerals, said that based on the pressure Gauteng was facing, the province would be putting contingency plans in place.

"They're talking in the Western Cape that we should be, what they refer to as 'spiking', around the end of July. We've got to prepare, we can't wait until it does happen and then we start thinking, 'what are we going to do?'"

It’s a race against time as the sector moves as fast as it is humanly possible to clear backlogs. But there is also a worry about the impact the unprecedented number of dead bodies they're seeing will have on workers.

WATCH: COVID-19 deaths: 'You can’t relate if you haven’t experienced it personally'

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